Innovative and dynamic former Fine Gael minister

 

John Boland, who died on August 14th aged 55, was a senior and influential Fine Gael politician for much of the 1980s. Able, intensely political, sometimes personally abrasive, he made his mark in a number of ministries and as a political strategist under the leadership of Dr Garret FitzGerald.

He was a dynamic minister, anxious for change and innovation, and he will probably be best remembered for his abolition of corporal punishment and his reform of the public service.

He also appointed the first Ombudsman, Michael Mills, political correspondent of the now defunct Irish Press. A Dubliner, and the son of two civil servants, he was educated in Synge Street CBS and UCD, from where he graduated with a B.Comm. He later studied for the Bar and pursued a legal career after his defeat in the 1989 general election.

His political career began when he was elected to Dublin County Council in 1967, becoming its youngest ever chairman in 1971 at the age of 26. In that role, he was embroiled in some controversial rezoning decisions around Dublin Airport.

He took out an auctioneer's licence, handling some of the property deals himself. Together with similar activities by his Fianna Fail counterpart, Ray Burke, these actions became the subject of an investigation by the Fraud Squad in 1973-1974, ending up on the desk of the Director of Public Prosecutions. No charges were brought.

Asked to recall the controversy, in the mid-1980s, he said: "There was an amount of unfair comment at the time, and I haven't thought about it for years."

John Boland notched up a political record when, aged 24, he was elected to the Seanad in 1969, the youngest member of the upper house up to that time.

He was first elected to the Dail for Dublin North in 1977, and went on to serve in a number of senior front bench positions, before his appointment as Minister for Education in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition from June 1981 to March 1982.

Although his term was short, his abolition of corporal punishment, radical and courageous, was a landmark decision. He said at the time he was making the decision in order to "make Irish schools more attractive places for those who work and study in them".

When Fine Gael and Labour returned to government in another coalition in December 1982, he was appointed to the then Department of Public Service, staying there until February 1986, when he moved to Environment and later Health.

As well as abolishing seniority as the main qualification for senior Civil Service posts, his package of public service reforms, announced in January 1984, included the provision that secretaries of government departments would be allowed to serve no more than seven years. He showed considerable political skills in 1982, when he masterminded a spectacular victory for Fine Gael in the Dublin West by-election.

The then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, leading a minority administration, offered the post of EU Commissioner to the Fine Gael Dublin West deputy, Richard Burke, believing that Fianna Fail would win the subsequent by-election and secure itself in government. The other Fine Gael TD for the constituency, Jim Mitchell, a formidable vote-getter in his own right, helped secure the nomination for Liam Skelly, a businessman from his native Inchicore. When Dr FitzGerald asked John Boland to be director of elections, he initially refused, but relented under pressure.

John Boland first went on a family holiday to Portugal, and pored over extensive data on the constituency and candidates telexed from Dublin. Back home, assisted by Jim Mitchell and other senior party figures, he ran the campaign with military-like precision and John Skelly won the seat against the odds.

The Fine Gael victory restored party morale, following the fall of the FG-Labour coalition over a tax on children's shoes, and marked the beginning of the end of the Haughey-led government. When Fine Gael left government in 1987, John Boland remained on the front bench, but was dropped a year later as environment spokesman by Dr FitzGerald's successor, Alan Dukes.

He vigorously rejected suggestions at the time that he had not been pulling his weight, because of the time spent on his Bar studies. A year later, he lost his Dublin North Dail seat. Throughout his political career, he was frequently controversial and outspoken, calling for the formation of a national government between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail during political upheavals in 1982.

The following year, trade unionists derisively rejected his suggestion, made as the then Minister for the Public Service, that the State's workforce should do one Saturday's work without pay, instead of taking part in threatened work stoppages.

Although he never courted popularity, those who knew him well found him witty and good company in private. He was liked by many of his Fine Gael contemporaries, and he enjoyed cross-party admiration as a minister and political tactician. John Boland, who died after a long battle against cancer, lived in Skerries, where he pursued his interest in sailing. He was also a keen racing fan and a follower of Gaelic games.

He is survived by his wife Kay, his daughter Grace, his son John, his brother Cathal, and his sister Marian.

John Boland: born 1944; died, August 2000